The Right Rev Denis Wakeling

Courageous wartime Royal Marine who became Bishop of Southwell
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The Independent Online

Denis Wakeling led his men in some of the fiercest fighting in Italy during the Second World War and was awarded the Military Cross "for great courage and exemplary behaviour whilst carrying out commando operations under heavy enemy fire off the Yugoslavian coast". After the war he was ordained, eventually becoming Bishop of Southwell.

John Denis Wakeling, marine and priest: born Leicester 12 December 1918; MC 1945; ordained deacon 1947, priest 1948; Chaplain, Clare College, Cambridge and Chaplain to the Cambridge Pastorate 1940-52; Vicar of Emmanuel, Plymouth 1952-59; Prebendary of Exeter Cathedral 1957-59; Vicar of Barking, Essex 1959-65; Archdeacon of West Ham 1965-70; Bishop of Southwell 1970-85; married 1941 Josephine Broomhall (died 2004; two sons); died Wimborne, Dorset 10 October 2004.

Denis Wakeling led his men in some of the fiercest fighting in Italy during the Second World War and was awarded the Military Cross "for great courage and exemplary behaviour whilst carrying out commando operations under heavy enemy fire off the Yugoslavian coast". After the war he was ordained, eventually becoming Bishop of Southwell.

In June 1944 Wakeling was commanding A Troop, 40 Royal Marine Commando, which, in company with 43 Royal Marine Commando and a substantial force of Tito's partisans, was called upon to attack the formidable German garrison on the island of Brac. The raiding force sailed from Vis, the only island not in German hands, with the object of creating a diversion intended to ease pressure on Tito's mainland partisans who were in danger of being encircled by the Germans. The capture of Brac, close to the mainland port of Split, would impose a serious threat to the German supply lanes to the islands and force them to reinforce the coastal garrison.

The main force of 4,500 partisan and British troops landed on Brac on 3 June 1944 and after fierce fighting captured all the objectives with the exception of the town of Supetar and three prominent hill features. A final effort was made after nightfall by the two commando units to capture the key German position on one of the hills, but difficult wireless communications and poor visibility resulted in a disjointed attack and 43 Commando was forced to withdraw.

Led by Wakeling, A Troop, with Y Troop on the left, attempted to penetrate the tough German defences, well protected by wire, mines and machine-guns. Resolutely Wakeling led his troop up the hill, directing and pressing home the assault. The German defence was stubborn and by the time both troops had crested the hill they had incurred considerable casualties but had established a defensive position and signalled that the objective had been taken. Almost immediately the Germans launched a strong counterattack. Wakeling held his position until early morning when he received orders to withdraw. His coolness and personal bravery under fire led to a successful and orderly return to the base of the hill without further casualties.

Although the capture of the entire island was not achieved, the Germans hastened to reinforce their garrison at Brac and the defences at Split. The pressure on Tito's main force was considerably reduced and he survived to continue the struggle for liberation.

Later in the year Wakeling was involved in another action in Albania where 40 RM Commando were tasked with the capture of the port of Sarande. The attack, preceded by appalling weather, was launched at dawn, 9 October 1944. The advancing troops were confronted by cross-fire from Spandau machine-gun positions, inflicting casualties and preventing progress until each had been eliminated. During this battle the commanders of X and Q Troops were both killed. A Troop moved up in support and Wakeling again distinguished himself as he took command of all the troops. The battle raged on throughout the day with Wakeling well forward encouraging his men. After four hours of savage fighting German resistance in Sarande was broken and the garrison surrendered.

The German garrison in Corfu followed and the commander's brief was to prevent civil unrest until such time as the Greek government could manage its affairs unaided. Wakeling and his troop performed hearts-and-minds operations designed to reduce the black market, restore order and gain the confidence of the people. By the time his men had returned to the UK, life in Corfu had returned to normal.

Wakeling spent six months towards the end of the war as company commander at the RM Depot, Deal, and the last part in HQ Commando Group in India, preparing for the invasion of Japan. He retired from the Royal Marines with the rank of major in 1946.

John Denis Wakeling was born in Leicester in 1918, the third son of John and Mary Wakeling, missionaries with the Church Missionary Society in India. He was educated at St Michael's School, Limpsfield, in Surrey and then at Dean Close, Cheltenham. As well as being captain of the hockey and cricket teams he was a member of the drama group and played the part of Jimmy Raleigh, the ill-fated subaltern, in a school production of the First World War play Journey's End. Thereafter he was known by his service comrades as Jimmy.

During the two years before the Second World War, he read Classics at St Catherine's College, Cambridge, where he gained a Blue at hockey and also had a trial for the England team, but on the outbreak of war he volunteered for service and was commissioned in the newly formed 2nd Battalion Royal Marines. In May 1940 this unit deployed briefly to Iceland in anticipation of a German invasion. Later that year he sailed with the battalion to Freetown, West Africa, with the prospect of landing at Dakar with Free French forces. The operation, however, was abandoned after the Vichy French responded with unexpected resistance. The unit remained in Freetown for possible operations against the Cape Verde Islands and returned to the UK in February 1941. In August 1943 Wakeling was posted to 40 RM Commando in Italy.

On 17 January 1944 Wakeling, commanding A Troop, took part in a commando operation in support of the 169 Brigade crossing of the Garigliano River. The commando, split into two forces, carried out a daring operation behind enemy lines, destroying enemy vehicles and guns and taking prisoners, thereby achieving their objective of creating as much havoc as possible. During this operation Wakeling was wounded in a night encounter.

After the war Wakeling, now using his Christian name Denis, returned to Cambridge and prepared for the ministry at Ridley Hall Theological College. He was ordained deacon in 1947 and priest in 1948. He was a curate in Barwell, Leicestershire, before being appointed Chaplain of Clare College, Cambridge, and Chaplain of the Cambridge Pastorate. His wartime experiences proved useful as many of his undergraduates were facing call-up for the war in Korea.

In 1952 he became Vicar of Emmanuel Church, Plymouth, and in 1958 Vicar of Barking, Essex. Wakeling was to become the youngest Prebendary of Exeter Cathedral, serving as a Proctor in Convocation (the forerunner of the General Synod). He worked with the Grubb Institute of Behavioural Studies to bring the then new understandings of "group dynamics" into the training of the clergy and laity within his diocese.

In 1964 he was appointed Archdeacon of West Ham, where his sermons were always down-to-earth and deeply appreciated for his understanding of human nature. He became Bishop of Southwell in 1970, restoring the confidence of the diocese with his leadership. He participated in the House of Bishops of the General Synod of the Church of England from its inception, and from 1974 until his retirement in 1984 he sat in the House of Lords.

In retirement he renewed his links with the Royal Marines, which he maintained throughout the rest of his life; indeed the Band of the Royal Marines had played a fanfare in Southwell Minster during his enthronement. He also pursued his great interests in gardening, watercolour painting and fly-fishing.

Max Arthur



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